"A rebellion". "The birth of the anti-ad"."The death knell for influencers". Just a few contentious terms you’ll find if you Google "what is de-influencing?".
After more digging online or a quick scroll on TikTok (#deinfluencing has more than 200 million views), you might surmise it as "a viral trend taking over social media, one influencer-fuelled negative product review at a time".
But if you do, and you’re a brand marketer, you might be overlooking one of the most symbolic marketing macro shifts in recent history. It comes with challenges, but also enormous opportunities and learnings we cannot afford to ignore.
What it is and what it isn’t
First, it’s important to understand not just what de-influencing is, but what it is not.
It does not equal cancel culture, nor is it the aforementioned death knell for influencers, or influencer marketing. Quite the opposite.
Here’s why. De-influencing is a huge step in the direction of authenticity in how people are sold to.
It sees influencers engaging their communities about what not to buy, sharing honest and detailed feedback.
Socioeconomic and environmental factors at play
De-influencing is also a by-product of a convergence of socioeconomic and environmental factors, and increasing lethargy toward consumer culture.
In other words, people are fed up with being sold to all the live-long day, especially via highly filtered, polished lenses spouting unhealthy idealisms. And they’d rather our planet didn’t perish as a result.
There’s a stark contrast between today’s economic uncertainty and its impact on consumer spending versus the fusillade of online content telling us to spend, spend, spend on things we need, need, need.
People (including influencers themselves) are feeling the pressure of a very real cost-of-living crisis and re-evaluating how they spend, so it's no surprise this is driving a major shift in one of the most human forms of marketing.
The global influencer marketing market size has more than doubled since 2019, to an estimated $16.4bn in 2022, as marketers increasingly prioritise it. In the past it was deemed as a "top-of-funnel" activity mainly feeding awareness and engagement.
This has changed greatly in big part to advances in social commerce. Additionally, influencers are proving their impact beyond social media and being integrated across other channels.
The golden opportunity for brands
Herein lies the golden opportunity. As influencer marketing goes full-funnel, it’s vital brands know how to foster long-term, trustworthy and transparent relationships with influencer partners. It is also critical that influencers are brought in earlier to the campaign development process.
For our work with Public Health England, which focused on educating young people on the importance of getting the Covid vaccination and adhering to lockdown guidance, we ran focus groups with gaming YouTubers asking them why they might be tempted to break Covid rules.
The insight we received helped to inform key messaging and positioning on our subsequent campaigns.
With another client, ACCA, we were challenged with helping them reframe accounting as an exciting career opportunity for Gen Z. We used Instagram story polls to gather contextual insight on how this younger audience view accounting and applied it multiple campaigns across Instagram, TikTok and Snap (AR lenses).
Through always-on, trend-led ambassador programmes we drove consideration and sign-ups for events, including the most sign-ups ever to a Guardian online event. We’re now able to track new students coming through off the back of this.
Think of your campaign as a cake. Influencers are not the icing. They are the flour and yeast, and the de-influencing movement we’re seeing today proves this.
Having a plan to address constructive criticism has never been more important, so brands should see this as an opportunity to supercharge their community management.
Rather than reacting with concern, be open to receiving honest feedback. Engage more effectively with both influencers and their audience by joining (and sometimes leading) the conversation.
Respond in the comments, and use the insight you get for product development. Then, showcase the results of how this feedback was used, back to the community it was sourced from.
TikTok alarm clock
While our Bytesights data already shows that the #DeInfluencing hashtag has likely reached saturation, it’s definitely not a passing trend. This style of content is here to stay, and it's not new.
Neither is the backlash. Remember the war on photoshopped ads in magazines, or the campaigning against face-tuning selfies?
The difference with de-influencing is that it represents something much more panoptic and arguably encompasses the above.
It is a sleeping giant we needed to wake, and its alarm clock came in the form of TikTok.
TikTok is synonymous with raw, real and unfiltered content, and thanks to its impeccably fine-tuned algorithm it’s also the place people (especially young people) come to find (and grow) their tribe.
TikTok is responsible for catapulting influencers and brands alike into lucrative limelight and fandoms in the multi-millions, but it is also the breeding ground for smaller micro-influencers and their micro-communities with whom they have deep loyalty.
Just like brands want to demonstrate loyalty to customers, so too do influencers to their communities.
If you tracked backwards from what we’re seeing with de-influencing today, to where it started, you’d land right in the thick of those micro-communities on TikTok getting real about the things they love, and the things they don’t.
People trust people
The reason influencer marketing works so well now is the same reason it worked well in the first place. People trust people more than brands.
At the core of it, what we are seeing with de-influencing can be simplified to increased honesty and authenticity in selling, paired with the demand for content people actually value and want to engage with.
Brands should embrace this as an opportunity to work smarter with influencer partners and engage more effectively with target audiences. They should listen, learn and respond in more meaningful ways that better align with the reality of the often turbulent world we live in.
Creating long-term, honest partnerships with authentic voices will always be the route to the broad appeal and powerful results of influencer marketing.
Above all, selling can’t just be about, well, selling anymore. The sooner we get on board with that, the sooner we’ll – rather ironically – see the results.
Chris Davis is head of growth at Fanbytes by Brainlabs